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Naoto Nakagawa’s Art of Seeing and Being

Naoto Nakagawa, “The Last Supper” (2014), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 84 inches (photo by John Berens, ©2015 Naoto Nakagawa, courtesy of the artist)

Aristotelians and logical positivists alike have had a field day speculating about the related phenomena of sight, perception, and truth, but what about the revelations one may glean through the unsinkable, old-fashioned medium of elastic, luminous paint?

Paint and the art of painting as tools for seeing (that is, understanding) have been career-long preoccupations of the Japanese-born, New York-based artist Naoto Nakagawa, who now, as he enters his seventies, is still making images with a sense of wonder about his medium’s expressive power and with the pleasure of a kid who has just discovered how to squeeze its shiny, viscous goo out of a tube.

Nakagawa comes from a family with a unique artistic heritage and he has been drawing and painting skillfully since childhood. Respected in New York’s community of painters as much for the integrity of his vision as for his technical proficiency, he is one of those artists’ artists who can take forever to complete a single canvas and who emerges only when he feels his work has something substantive to say. (He has never been involved in the art world’s most popular sports — chasing trends and generating hype.)

In recent years, Nakagawa has been working on his Earth Series, a group of thematically related, acrylic-on-canvas paintings, one of which, “The Last Supper” (2014), will go on view next week in The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet, a multi-artist exhibition that will open on October 6 at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

While a public showing of the entire Earth Series is still in development, “The Last Supper” seems to signal that, comparatively speaking, this new group of pictures might be what a late-career “big book” is for a literary artist — a summation of the subjects and the modes of creation that have long characterized an evolving body of work.

The artist Naoto Nakagawa in his New York studio with three paintings, including, on the wall, “Still Life in Process” (1966), acrylic on canvas, 20 x 15 inches; behind the artist: “Earth Series III” (2013), acryclic on canvas, 52 x 41.5 inches; and on the right, “Fallen Angels II” (2015), acryclic on canvas, 84 x 54 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

During a recent visit to Nakagawa’s Downtown Manhattan studio, near Canal Street, the artist reminded me that he was born in 1944 in Takarazuka, a town near the port cities of Osaka and Kobe in south-central Japan. (It is the home base of the popular Takarazuka Revue, an all-female musical-theater company that is famous for its high-stepping, song-and-dance spectacles.) As a young man, Nakagawa’s paternal grandfather, Eijirō Nakagawa, had traveled to and lived in the United States, where he learned about the luxury-goods trade before returning to Japan to set up his own business importing jewelry and high-end beauty products.

As he prospered, Eijirō became the patron of Kagaku Murakami (1888-1939), a respected painter in the bunjin, or literati, tradition, who was known for his Buddhist themes and contributions to nihonga, a Japanese painting genre that showcases indigenous subject matter and sometimes incorporates Western techniques. (To non-Japanese eyes, some nihonga works may appear to be soaked in kitsch.)

Naoto Nakagawa’s father married the artist Murakami’s daughter. Naoto recalled that his father had served in World War II, “fighting American forces in the jungles of Sumatra,” and that, after the war, when US military personnel began their occupation of Japan and commandeered the Nakagawas’ home, they sent the family away with one day’s notice. In time, Naoto’s father would resume his management of the family business and reclaim his property.

A wall covered with preliminary sketches for paintings in artist Naoto Nakagawa’s studio in Manhattan, near Canal Street, September 2015 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Nakagawa told me, “At the age of ten, I declared to my parents that I was going to be an artist.” He already had been drawing and painting regularly; in junior high school, an art teacher became his mentor and a conduit to the action-art and prototypical performance-art activities of the avant-garde Gutai group, whose members were based in the nearby region. “I did not want to be like the Gutai artists but I appreciated their energy,” Nakagawa said. When he was seventeen, an exhibition of American abstract art, including works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, and a separate exhibition of modern School of Paris works, effectively sealed his fate. Wowed by the energy and daring of the American paintings he had seen, he decided to travel to the US to pursue the life of an artist.

Things American were not exactly foreign to the young Nakagawa. Not only had his home been occupied by US military officers, but his father’s American business associates had visited Japan from time to time, and while living in Takarazuka, Naoto even had an American exchange-student girlfriend. He obtained a passport and, to enter the US, a visa, both of which were difficult tasks at the time. Now only eighteen years old, in 1962 he boarded a ship with his parents’ blessing in search of his future. He knew no one in New York.

However, among the handful of passengers on the freighter that carried him to the US, he met the American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who had been covering the war in the Pacific, and Barbara White, a researcher who had been in Japan learning about washi (Japanese handmade paper). Nakagawa recalled, “Smith was in pain and was drinking heavily; he had been injured and still had shrapnel in his body. They couldn’t believe my story — a Japanese teenager with no contacts, traveling alone — and they helped me.” The painter added, “It was a tense arrival; the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding, and we were surrounded by Cuban ships as we approached the coast of the United States.”

Naoto Nakagawa, “Icon” (1966), enamel and acrylic on canvas, 20 x 18 inches (photo courtesy the artist)

In New York, Nakagawa won a scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum’s art school. There, one of his teachers was Stephen Antonakos (who died in 2013), an artist who used neon lights in his abstract works. Unexpectedly, two of his classmates, who would become his friends, were also young Japanese men who had made the trek to modern art’s new postwar capital. They were On Kawara (1932–2014) and Shūsaku Arakawa (1936–2010). A 1960s-era article in Bijutsu Techō, Japan’s leading contemporary-art magazine, showed a photo of Nakagawa looking like one of the Rolling Stones circa Aftermath (1966) and described his paintings of that time, in which shaded, colored balls appeared in architectonically organized pictorial space. They were not quite Pop Art and they would give way to unusual, richly painted works like “Icon” (enamel and acrylic on canvas, 1966), which felt more surrealist than Pop. “Icon” depicted a big pair of scissors whose blades had turned into a penis and a fresh green leaf.

During the 1970s, in large-scale, acrylic-on-canvas paintings, Nakagawa continued examining the forms and textures of odd groupings of ordinary objects — umbrellas, hair combs, pencils, hand tools. These paintings did look or feel more like Pop but with a twist; something about them seemed to examine the essential nature of their subjects instead of regarding them with Pop’s blend of irony and detachment. “I was always painting objects,” Nakagawa noted. “I was searching for something. I even learned transcendental meditation.” Over time, he went on to show his work in galleries in New York, Boston and Tokyo.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Still Life With Deer Head” (1977), acrylic on canvas, 46 x 54 inches (photo courtesy of the artist)

Arakawa once dismissed painting as “only an exercise, never more than that.” However, as Nakagawa would show in such acrylic-on-canvas works as “Still Life With Earth” (1975) or “Still Life With Deer Head” (1977), which really were more portraits of objects than mere still lifes, painting could investigate and reveal as much about the nature of existence as any elaborately written philosophical text. In these pictures and others like them, Nakagawa depicted in meticulous detail everything from lawn mowers and power tools to bicycles, ice skates, fish, taxidermy-preserved animals, a box of nails, a microscope, voluptuous flowers and a banjo. If Nakagawa was not a Pop artist per se, he was not a Photorealist, either, since he did not paint from or imitate photographs. If anything, his highly realistic images from the past decades offered something compellingly irreal. Recently he explained, “I was interested in man-made versus nature-made. Throughout my painting journey, it is man’s relationship with nature that has interested me; sometimes it’s harmonious, sometimes it’s violent.”

Naoto Nakagawa, “Still Life With Earth” (1975), acrylic on canvas, 46 x 54 inches (photo courtesy of the artist)

For a long time, one of Nakagawa’s central themes has been an awareness of existence in general and of the human race’s not always wholesome co-existence with nature. At the same time, another of his themes has been an awareness of that awareness itself. (In the late 1960s and the 1970s, Japan’s avant-garde Mono-ha artists brought a similar consciousness to their focus on encounters between natural and industrially made materials.)

In his Earth Series, Nakagawa, who once probed the soul of a lawn mower, has taken on bigger subjects — that is, objects — in his consciousness-raising through paint. He has moved on to depict whole planets and celestial pageants whose fantasy imagery evokes earthly concerns about material existence that are about as real as they can get. For today, Nakagawa recently explained, “I want to pay attention to the Earth, to what we’re doing to it and to the way it’s connected to the rest of the universe. I feel it’s urgent to dive into this issue of our survival and that of nature and the whole planet.”

The Value of Food considers the role of what we humans eat to sustain ourselves, and, more broadly, the survival of life. In this exhibition, Nakagawa’s “The Last Supper” shows a multitude of silvery fish emerging into the cosmos from an apparently fiery — and angry? — Earth, from which a lone hawk picks off a specimen and flies away into the void to enjoy a final repast. Have Earth’s animals given up and had enough of human mistreatment? Is there nothing left for them to do but flee?

Naoto Nakagawa, “In the Beginning” (2013), acrylic on canvas, 41.5 x 52 inches (photo by John Berens, ©2015 Naoto Nakagawa, courtesy of the artist)

Other Earth Series works, like “In the Beginning” (2013), show swarms of monarch butterflies enveloping an improbable assembly of planets. (Is the cosmos itself in a huff about the fate of the Earth, and have Saturn and his pals gathered to scold her?) In “Fallen Angels II” (2015), more butterflies surround the Earth, and stemmed roses rain down from it; they are symbols of fecundity that contrast with a more barren planet, which raises its head at the bottom of this long, vertical composition. “In fact, it’s the dead Earth,” Nakagawa pointed out with a quiet but utterly firm sense of warning.

Nakagawa, who as a child once made pictures of his sister or his napping cats, has packed a lot into these new images. He has done so the old-fashioned way, with brushes and paint, not computer-generated graphics or shiny lightboxes or high-tech video screens. If there is something unabashedly baroque in these visual morality tales for a new millennium, it may be because, for all his Zen-like awareness, Nakagawa has always known how to deliver a dazzler of a show, not unlike the dancers of the Takarazuka Revue.

Looking back over his art-making career, Nakagawa observed, “I moved from painting man-made objects, which dominated my pictures, to showing man-made and natural objects together, juxtaposed, and then to just nature.” Nakagawa’s “nature” is a big concept, which includes outer space.

Naoto Nakagawa, “Narcissus” (2013), acrylic on canvas, 52 x 41.5 inches (photo by John Berens, ©2015 Naoto Nakagawa, courtesy of the artist)

That is, of course, a very expansive theme. If to really “see” such a big subject — or any subject, in whole or part — means to understand it, then Nakagawa’s concentrated manner of looking is one that may lead to that kind of seeing.

Art like Nakagawa’s also seems to propose that to see is to be — that seeing is indelibly linked to the apprehension that one exists. It’s an art that revels in the fleeting, ever-changing nature of being, and now more than ever advocates for some kind of engagement with that awareness. Beyond its expertly rendered alarm clocks, stuffed birds, chain saws, clusters of shimmering stars and wayward planets, that sense of enlightened consciousness may be its real subject, after all.

The Value of Food: Sustaining a Green Planet will be on view at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Morningside Heights, Manhattan) from October 6, 2015 through April 3, 2016.

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